In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, I review an extremely rare Massachusetts revival of Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest and the off-Broadway transfer of Be More Chill. Here’s an excerpt.
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Few playwrights have fallen farther—or faster—than Robert Sherwood. His name was rarely missing from the marquées of Broadway in the Twenties and Thirties, and most of his hits, including “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” “Idiot’s Delight” and “The Petrified Forest,” were turned into popular Hollywood movies. Then, in 1940, Sherwood went to Washington to write speeches for Franklin Roosevelt, and by the time he made it back to Broadway, tastes had changed and he’d lost his touch: He turned out nothing but flops and near-misses between 1946 and his death in 1955….
Now, very much to my surprise, the Berkshire Theatre Festival has exhumed “The Petrified Forest,” the 1935 stage thriller that made Humphrey Bogart a bad-guy star. What’s more, it’s presenting the play on its main stage in an expensive-looking production directed by David Auburn, the author of “Proof.” All this bespeaks considerable faith in the abilities of a forgotten playwright—and “The Petrified Forest” justifies that faith. It’s not merely stageworthy but excitingly immediate, and Mr. Auburn’s uncommonly well-cast staging enhances the pleasures of a play that is far more than a dusty period piece.
Set in the lunch room of the Black Mesa Filling Station and Bar-B-Q, a rundown roadside café somewhere in the deserts of Arizona, “The Petrified Forest” is a “Grand Hotel”-style ensemble piece that brings together a cast of disparate characters and puts them in a high-pressure situation. The plot is as uncomplicated as a slug from a .45: Duke Mantee (Jeremy Davidson), a hard-boiled heister on the lam, shows up at the café to hide from his pursuers, taking the occupants hostage. Among them are Gabby (Rebecca Brooksher), a disillusioned girl whose lost idealism has just been rekindled by the arrival of Alan Squier (David Adkins), a failed writer who longs in vain for a reason to live—or die.
Sherwood was, of course, the staunchest of New Deal liberals, and “The Petrified Forest” is not merely a thriller but a symbolic portrayal of the shaky state of Depression-era American morale, with Squier playing the part of the high-minded but ineffectual liberal intellectual who is galvanized by crisis into decisive action. The good news is that Sherwood never lets his politics overwhelm the plot….
The New York transfer of “Be More Chill,” the new high-school musical about an anxious teenage nerd (Will Roland) who stumbles across a science-fictional way of overcoming his nerdishness, has just sold out the remainder of its three-week off-Broadway run. Hence I’ll be brief: “Be More Chill” is a delight, a tale of social anxiety whose pop-rock score, written by Joe Iconis, is unfailingly lively and fresh. Stephen Brackett and Chase Brock, the director and choreographer, keep the pace brisk, and the cast, Stephanie Hsu in particular, is engaging without limit
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Read the whole thing here.
David Auburn and the cast of The Petrified Forest talk about the play:
The original theatrical trailer for the 1936 film version of The Petrified Forest:
The trailer for the original Two River Theater Company 2015 production of Be More Chill: